With each passing year the Virginia Tech defense is considered to be one of the best in the country. The faces under the helmets may change from year to year but the constant is the architect of this defense, Bud Foster. Foster has been the mastermind behind several defenses that rated in the top five in the country. The calling cards of these defenses have been toughness and a relentless intensity that matched the attitude of their coordinator. However, this year like many Foster is challenged with replacing players that were not only starters at key positions but leaders on the field.
As spring practice is heading into full swing Foster is getting an idea of what he is going to have to work with to construct another national powerhouse defense. The Hokies biggest losses occur on the defense side of the ball. The Hokies lose eight key players all over the field, with the biggest losses coming in the front seven. This is a major loss when you consider the Hokie defense is built around pressure and creating havoc in the backfield.
The Hokie defensive line suffers loss on the exterior and interior of the line. Accomplished pass rusher, James Gayle, and run stopping defensive tackle, Derrick Hopkins, both graduated and hope to play on Sundays next season. However, the cupboard is not entirely bare. Returning players are Luther Maddy and Dadi Nicolas to help lead the defensive line. Maddy is a huge body to clog the middle. He is expected to take over the run stopping duties from Hopkins. Nicolas played a big role for Foster last year on the defensive line becoming one of those interchangeable lineman that have become so common to see for Hokie fans.
Along with Maddy and Nicolas, others are making an impact in spring practice and hope to become starters. Corey Marshall and Nigel Williams are looking to cement themselves as starters come the fall season. Marshall has some game experience from last year, whereas Williams was redshirted last year for personal issues. The other defensive end position seems to be firmly in the grasp of Ken Ekanem, a redshirt sophomore. Ekanem was a four star recruit coming into Virginia Tech. He played in eleven games last year although most of his time was spent on special teams. If Ekanem lives up to his talent level he could be a very solid contributor. He has already shown some of his talent in the first spring scrimmage of the year recording two sacks.
Although the defensive line has some experience coming back the linebacker core was completely depleted. Jack Tyler, J.R. Collins and Tariq Edwards will all leave. Bud Foster has his biggest rebuilding project yet replacing not only great tacklers but senior leadership. The loss of Tyler perhaps is the most detrimental. The mike linebacker acts as an extension of Foster himself. The successor to this important position comes in the form of fifth year senior Chase Williams. Williams, however, will have to prove himself this spring. With only one start in his career Williams will have to learn quickly what it is to start and lead the defense.
Williams is not alone at the top of the depth chart. Freshman Andrew Motuapuaka is nipping at his heels. The other two linebacker spots are projected to be filled by junior Deon Clarke and redshirt sophomore Dahman McKinnon. Clarke’s entire career for the Hokies has been plagued with off the field issues causing him to only play in twelve games in his three years at Tech. However, with the loss of the top three performers at that position Clarke finds himself at the top of the depth chart. According to an article by Richmond Times Dispatch writer Mike Barber, head coach Frank Beamer even singled Clarke for praise. Beamer stated Clarke has a promising future as long as he can do things right off the field. Dahman McKinnon impressed the coaching staff in off-season workouts and led the defense in tackles with four in the first scrimmage.
The secondary was the least hit by graduation only losing Kyle Fuller and Antone Exum. With Fuller and Exum graduating Bud Foster had the advantage playing younger players because of injuries to both these secondary stalwarts. Kendall Fuller, the younger brother of Kyle, and Brandon Facyson were forced into early duty last year and showed they both were capable replacements. Unfortunately, Facyson will miss spring practice due to an injury. Also, come fall Facyson and Fuller will be needed to anchor the Hokies pass defense.
Though Bud Foster may be working with a new cast of starting players this spring and fall, we can be assured these players will be ready for the start of the season. Losing eight key players will no doubt be a tall task to overcome for the Hokies defense. Bud Foster is up to the task of molding a strong unit out of new players and new faces. Hokie fans can be assured that although the names and numbers on the back of the jerseys may be different the result will be a defensive unit ranking among the top in the country.